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March 7, 2014

American Girl in Italy (1951): The Story Behind the Iconic Picture

Back in 1951, Ninalee Craig was a carefree 23-year-old who had chucked her job in New York and secured third-class accommodations on a ship bound for Europe. She spent more than six months making her way through France, Spain and Italy all by herself — something very few women did in the years following World War II.

© 1952, 1980 Ruth Orkin / Courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery

She traveled as inexpensively as she could, so she was thrilled when she found a hotel right on the Arno River in Florence where she could stay for $1 a day. There, she met another adventurous solo female traveler: Ruth Orkin, a 29-year-old photographer who came to Italy after completing an assignment in Israel.

“She was living from day to day, nickel-and-diming it,” Craig recalled. “We talked about traveling alone and asked each other, ‘Are you having a hard time? Are you ever bothered?’ We both found that we were having a wonderful time, and only some things were a little difficult.”

In the course of that conversation, an idea was hatched: They would head out together the next morning, wander around Florence and shoot pictures of what it was really like to travel alone as a young single woman.

From about 10 a.m. to noon the following day, Orkin shot photos of Craig — who then called herself “Jinx Allen,” a name she invented and assumed because it sounded “exciting” — admiring statues, asking for directions, haggling at markets and flirting in cafes.

“We were literally horsing around,” Craig said, reminiscing about the bright orange shawl she wore that day.

Orkin captured her famous “American Girl in Italy” photograph during those two hours of silliness and fun. Her contact sheets from that day reveal that she shot only two frames of that particular street scene.

Contact sheet from “American Girl in Italy”

“The big debate about the picture, which everyone always wants to know, is: Was it staged? NO!” Craig said. “No, no, no! You don’t have 15 men in a picture and take just two shots. The men were just there ... The only thing that happened was that Ruth Orkin was wise enough to ask me to turn around and go back and repeat [the walk].”

Orkin died in 1985. Her daughter, Mary Engel, has devoted her life to protecting her mother’s photographic archive and promoting her legacy as a documentary photographer. Engel agreed with Craig’s account of what happened on that August day in Florence, and she added one more contextual detail.

“She told the man on motorcycle to tell the other men not to look at the camera,” said Engel, director of the Orkin/Engel Film and Photo Archive. “But the composition, it just happened. And my mother got it. That’s what she was good at. ... She didn’t take loads and loads of photos. She waited for shots.”

Of course, a good documentary photograph welcomes viewers into a scene and invites their interpretations. That’s understandable, say Craig and Engel — but both of them stress the same point about “American Girl in Italy”: The photo is primarily a celebration of strong, independent women who aren’t afraid to live life.


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